I’m Making This Up as I Go: The Emma Walker Training Method

Since last week’s post, a couple of people have asked me how I went about training for a 50k. Before I go any further, I’d like to make it exceptionally clear that I am by no means an expert, and if you’re wondering how to train for something like this, you should start by asking someone else. If, however, you’re anything like me (i.e., your reaction to most good advice is to stubbornly tell yourself “…yeah, I’m not gonna do that”), here’s what I did to prepare and, as a bonus, my 20/20 hindsight on whether I’d do it again, hypothetically speaking. (No, really. I have no immediate plans to do this again.) 

Set a realistic goal. The race I picked for my first marathon in 2017 was not beginner-friendly. It wasn’t on technical trails, but it was at high elevation (up to 12,500 feet), included a metric shit-ton of vertical gain, and was part of a race series known for being really challenging. I’m glad I finished it, but I didn’t need to do that again. Still, I’m motivated by big goals, so signing up for a race is a good way for me to stay accountable. This time, I specifically sought out a race known for being well-organized, beginner-friendly, relatively flat, and on soft, non-technical surfaces. Verdict: Definitely recommend.

Make a plan. My plan was pretty haphazard. The basic structure was: 3 to 5 mile runs twice a week, plus a weekly long run (increasing distance by 3ish miles each week). I also did a lot of cross-training: I usually climb at the gym three days a week, including some weights and/or rowing, and I try to get to yoga at least once a week, plus skiing or mountain biking once a week or so. Basically, I have good base fitness, which makes most things I like to do easier. I tracked my workouts by writing them down in my planner, which was nice to motivate myself, but I didn’t do anything with that data. I use Gaia GPS, which I like because it’s user-friendly and tracks all the stuff I want to know about, but I’m not on Strava or anything, in part because I’m not that interested in comparing myself to others’ workouts (I’m slower!). Verdict: This plan was pretty similar to what most actual-experts will tell you: slowly increase your mileage, do one long run a week, cross-train to avoid injury. I do wish I’d made the effort to do more speed work and hill work, because I’d like to have run it a little faster.

Get the nutrition right, both at home and while running. I don’t have any specific dietary restrictions or allergies; if I’m going out, I’m eating what sounds good. That said, we pretty much eat vegetarian at home: whole grains, veggies, and protein like eggs, tofu, legumes. (It’s only not boring because my husband is an excellent cook. I, on the other hand, can pretty much make eggs.) I’ll have a few drinks on the weekend, but for the most part, we don’t drink during the week. I try to do some protein powder (whey) and chocolate milk (we do chocolate almond milk; we avoid most dairy because someone in my household is lactose intolerant, *ahem*) after big workouts. When I’m running, I make a point of eating something every hour. I like Clif Shot Bloks and Rx Bars (the latter are dense and a little hard to chew, but they taste pretty good and have tons of calories and protein). Personally, I avoid gels because the consistency makes me gag. Verdict: No complaints. I’ve never been a big diet person, in part because I am too neurotic to be that careful about what I eat without venturing into disordered eating territory, and in part because life’s short and I like to eat and I’m lucky enough not to have any allergies. I didn’t change much about my day-to-day diet while I was training, except to add in more protein as I upped my mileage. My running nutrition felt fine; I never felt close to bonking.

Taper (kind of). I ended up missing two of my planned long runs. One week, I planned to run a 7.5-mile loop three times, but stopped after two laps. I was all the things you’d expect after running 15 miles: hot, tired, cranky, a little frustrated that I didn’t feel better. I figured 15 miles was better than no miles, and tried not to put too much stock into having had one crappy training run. The following week, I was out of town for the weekend. I stayed active but didn’t run. I went back and forth on whether this was a good idea, but in the end, I did my last long run (22 miles) the week before the race. Most legit training plans have you taper for two weeks or so (i.e. do your last long run two weeks out, then rest and cross-train), so your legs are fresh on race day. I decided it was more important to me to feel ready mentally than it was to have an extra week of freshness. Verdict: I’m still not sure. During the race, I did tell myself a few times that I’d easily run 22 miles last week, so I could do this. I felt tired (duh), but I’m not sure I was more tired because I’d only had a week of rest rather than two. I think feeling ready in my brain was probably the right choice.

Keep your brain occupied. Most of the time, I don’t listen anything while I’m exercising. I like being outside, and part of that is the sights and sounds and smells, and I don’t want to be distracted from it. Running is the exception (though if I’m running for less than an hour, I can do without). For long runs, I like to listen to podcasts. I like when one ends and I can be like “Oh shit, it’s already been an hour! I am cruising through this excruciatingly long run!” Also, because it’s stuff I haven’t heard heard before, it’s harder to zone out; I’m distracted by what’s happening in my earbuds so I don’t have the time to think about how many miles I have left. I happen to love advice columns (combination of bossiness and schadenfreude?), so podcasts along those lines are right up my alley. Of course, if there’s any way to train with a friend, that’s always way more engaging. Verdict: Would recommend. On this particular race, my very awesome mom joined me for Lap #4, which was a welcome break from my headphones. It was nice to chatter at a real human, especially one who is my biggest fan. (Thanks, Mom!)

That’s pretty much it. Running 31 miles was hard. For most non-superhuman people, I think there’s not really much that would make running 31 miles not hard. I had to remember that during my race: This feels hard because it IS hard. Would I do it again? Sure. I’m glad I did it. I’m also really glad it’s over, and I’m certainly not chomping at the bit to run any farther.

Other questions for someone who is an expert only in stubbornness (or, as I prefer to think, stick-tuitive-ness)? Leave them in the comments or shoot me an email and I’ll do my best to answer.

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